Tips and Tricks

Small talk: are you prepared?

Part two of our examination of small talk delves deeper into the multicultural challenges of casual conversation

By David Hoskin

We’ve all met people who can small talk effortlessly with almost anyone. But for many of us, it can be a challenge. And for those who aren’t so comfortable, you’ll be relieved to know it’s a skill you can develop. All it takes is preparation and practice.

The first place to start is to realize that you need to appreciate cultural differences. Going to a meeting with Chinese vendors? Heading out to a job site with Italian managers? It never hurts to brush up on the culture. Do they expect small talk? What topics are taboo?

To many people from English-speaking cultures, Northern Europeans may seem too direct or unfriendly because they don’t make small talk. (German doesn’t even have a word for it!) While Americans and Brits are work-oriented cultures, they do like to feel camaraderie with their colleagues. Often, just a few words about family or other interests are enough to put them at ease and increase the chances of a good working relationship.

And, while there are exceptions to every rule, a good indicator of “small-talk cultures” is whether or not they are a service-oriented culture. The US, the UK, much of East Asia and Latin America are considered “service-oriented.” Do you leave a tip at the restaurant? Chances are, then, that a little small talk is expected in social or business situations.

Really, how are you?

So, how do you do it? Well, there’s not one sure way. Small talk is a little bit like flirting; sometimes the chemistry is there, sometimes it’s not. But you can help yourself by having a few prompts that you can use virtually anywhere.

Of course, the question “How are you?” is an appropriate greeting or small talk starter in just about any culture. But the answer can often vary. In most native-English speaking countries, the usual, polite response is something to the effect of, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” Be prepared, however; in other cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable to recite a list of complaints or a tale of misfortune. (This, of course, keeps you from having to make too much small talk!)

The weather is usually a safe topic in any culture, and polite comments about the country or town you’re in are also excellent starters. If you’re traveling, have a few positive comments about the city, the food or even the hotel – this never hurts to build a sense of goodwill.

If you’re not confident about the culture, always avoid heavy topics like religion, personal finance, moral or sexual issues. Some Northern Europeans may be surprised to find that in business, politics are also off the table in many cultures, including the US – if the topic arises, it’s best to express a generic view. Remember, the point of small talk is to build relationships, not put divisive opinions on display.

The quick tour

To help you make your next “small talk moment” less awkward, here are a few tips we’ve picked up from our travels and dealings with people all around the world. (Just remember: these are generalities, and no substitute for deeper cultural understanding.)

  • Northern Europeans like facts, politics and sport. In France, aloofness can be respected; it’s often wise to avoid being too personal with your small talk.
  • Southern Europeans and Latin American cultures communicate with a lot of emotion, and establishing mutual personal connections or interests can be an important component to business. Safe topics include family, friends and general hobbies.
  • In India, people often communicate by asking about families or social matters. It’s polite to ask about plans for the weekend, etc.
  • Japanese don’t do handshakes, but they do exchange business cards. Silent gaps in conversation are considered polite, so don’t try to fill them. Be careful when talking about status issues, either in business or socially.
  • Appropriate small talk in China includes talking about your (positive) experiences in China, but you should avoid talking about politics.
  • Remember: in many Western societies, it’s not good form to ask about age. However, in some Asian cultures, it’s important – with age comes respect. Also, in status-oriented cultures such as China and Japan, small talk may feature numerous questions that help social categorization.

Big talk

The subject of small talk is not small. But you can rest assured that, even as you would prepare your presentation or proposal, you can prepare for small talk. Brush up on the culture, if you can, and keep it positive and light.

Still, perhaps the most powerful tool at your disposal is the ability to be adaptable. Even if you know the general cultural norms, be ready to adapt your approach to the individual person. Just when you think you know what to talk about, be ready to adapt again as the person may break their own cultural rules!

Of course, we know we’re not the only people with small talk tricks – or disasters – to share. How about you? Any tips from the trenches?



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